Monday, August 24, 2015

OVP: Director (2008)

OVP: Best Director (2008)

The Nominees Were...

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Gus van Sant, Milk

My Thoughts: Let's finish up this Slumdog-Benjamin train, shall we?  With just two more categories to go before we call a wrap on 2008, the Academy gave us an oddly duplicated year in terms of Oscar races.  It's worth noting that not only did blockbuster The Dark Knight not make this list, but that the Best Director lineup mirrored the Best Picture one-matching up completely for the first time since 2005 (it's actually pretty rare-before that it hadn't happened since 1981).  As a result a lot of the talking points we get to here may be a little bit duplicated in Best Picture, though that doesn't necessarily guarantee the same winner (see past contests for proof).

We're going to start out with Ron Howard, because his very recognizable face up-top amidst a sea of guys who are admittedly well-known but weren't on two iconic television sitcoms, is sticking out to me.  Howard's nominations for Frost/Nixon weren't exactly surprising at the time, but in hindsight considering the way that his film about the 37th president has sort of disappeared from public consciousness they seem like an easy target for eye-rolling.  The reality is that Howard, much like the film, does his best work re-creating the tapes themselves.  The interviews are riveting stuff, particularly if you aren't familiar with the famous Frost/Nixon debates, but the rest of the film falls short.  There's a moment late in the film when Frank Langella, acting to the rafters, calls Michael Sheen's Frost in something of a psychotic stupor but it feels inauthentic because it's largely out-of-nowhere and borrows more from other depictions of Nixon than the one we have encountered.  I liked the way that Howard keeps focused on Nixon in tight close-up (we all know the stories about how he lost his 1960 debate, and the paranoid president was more than aware of such things at the time), but the rest of the film seems too traditionally-structured and shot to merit an Oscar inclusion.

Danny Boyle's directorial habits have always bugged the crap out of me, to be honest.  I get that he has a vision, and occasionally it's a creative one, but it always seems so jumbled.  There's occasionally great beauty in the film Slumdog Millionaire, particularly during the first flashback when we see the streets of this impoverished nation, but the film is too traditional later in the film, frequently relying on cliches and overusing its Who Wants to Be a Millionaire motif.  I also feel like too many of the characters end up being 2-dimensional, particularly Freida Pinto's girlfriend role, and that Boyle allows his actors to just stay at a surface-level rather than expanding their understanding of what is going on in the film.  That creates a shallower experience for the audience.

I am a sucker for Stephen Daldry and his intense, dramatic flourishes onscreen.  I love the way that he creates a sense of permanence onscreen.  His best examples of this are The Hours, where every decision over a short period of time has a devastating and damning consequence and so you feel the need to hone in on every moment, but The Reader does this remarkably well also.  The short affair, briefly framed and shot in close, urgent, "is-this-the-end" shots creates a stamina to the rest of the picture-how will this end for these characters?  It helps that he has world-class actors like Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes driving this love story, and admittedly the first-half is better framed than the second-half, but even the second-half he pushes the actors and the story in ways unexpected.  I am still driven by the fact that Lena Olin and Ralph Fiennes play characters who have rehearsed their parts for so many years, and yet are still eager to see what will take place even though they know what they'll say-it's a wonderfully-shot film and one that I loved, critics be damned there.

The other film I latched onto was of course Milk, directed by Gus van Sant.  Here we have a director known for avant garde but also for creating a memorable but relatively traditional work (Good Will Hunting), and he finds ways to combine the two.  The film isn't neutered in terms of its sexuality and in the ways it portrays gay characters.  There's a reason I gave it Best Editing-it kept in moments that other directors would have kept out like Joseph Cross getting to third base with Emile Hirsch in a dark room or the gay campaign team drooling over the pizza delivery guy.  These sorts of touches add to the authenticity that van Sant is trying to capture, but it also lends itself well to the boldness of Harvey as a character-he's someone that doesn't back away from saying things that might make people uncomfortable, even as he stakes out a place for himself in the world of straight America.

The final nomination is for David Fincher.  Fincher, quite frankly, is my favorite director of this bunch, but David Fincher is also a director that can create mood in the way that Otto Preminger created mood in Laura, and is not someone that's great at comedy or romance, but instead at heightened tensions.  The reality is that in a movie like Se7en or Zodiac or The Social Network (undoubtedly his three finest films) you have the greatest directorial moments when we are moving into unknown territory, but Benjamin Button just slugs along, with us knowing that Benjamin and Daisy won't have a particularly happy ending, but probably a pretty sweet one (which is what occurs).  The only moments where his directorial eye is really clear and clever is late in the film, when he's finding Daisy losing her youthful upper-hand, particularly when she indulges in a much younger-looking Benjamin.  These moments betray the slightest of bitterness and as a result we get the Fincher we love, but I'll admit that those moments are few-and-far between in this a-characteristic film.

Other Precursor Contenders: Best Director is one of those rare fields where the Globes, Guilds, and BAFTA awards all have the same number of nominees (aside from the supporting actor races, this is the only OVP category where this is the case).  As a result, one generally suspects uniformity, though each group put its own little stamp on the conversation.  For starters, the Globes skipped Gus van Sant in favor of Sam Mendes, who directed Revolutionary Road (Danny Boyle won).  The DGA Awards, usually the best predictor for this category, skipped Stephen Daldry, in this case picking Christopher Nolan for one of his three DGA nominations without a corresponding Best Director nomination (a feat equaled only by Rob Reiner), while honoring Danny Boyle (didn't everyone?).  Finally the BAFTA's skipped Gus van Sant as well, and while they also honored Danny Boyle they went with Clint Eastwood for Changeling.  I know the popular sentiment in the years since is that Nolan was just south of a nomination at the time, but considering that it didn't score in either of the big categories and we don't have the usual 4/5 Best Picture split, I wonder if perhaps Revolutionary Road/Clint Eastwood may have been just as plausible for the sixth places in the top two categories, considering the one's positioned as a "woman's picture" (usually they get Best Picture without Director), while Eastwood was enjoying his last big year of success with the Oscars until his strange hiatus that would last even when he would get nominated for American Sniper (he still missed in Best Director, arguably costing the film a Best Picture or Best Actor surprise trophy).
Directors I Would Have Nominated: I surely would have included Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, which is a marvelously shot and contained black comedy, along with Andrew Stanton's epic WALL-E.  Christopher Nolan after all of these years I'm not sure on-arguably the best contained scenes in The Dark Knight are also the best of the year (the bold risk of opening the film on high-alert as we zoom into a bank robbery, as if we're still watching a trailer, is perfection), so I would pick him but subbing he or maybe one of the nominated fellas for Arnaud Desplechin's family drama A Christmas Tale wouldn't be unforgivable.
Oscar’s Choice: Like every precursor, Danny Boyle took home the Oscar over Fincher and Daldry, in roughly that order.
My Choice: I'm picking van Sant over Daldry, a more singular achievement and one that caters more to the subject at hand.  In third is Fincher, followed by Howard and then Boyle.

Those were my thoughts-how about yours?  Are you with me in favor of van Sant or were you all about that Boyle?  Does anyone else also secretly (or not so secretly after nineteen write-ups) love The Reader?  And Eastwood, Nolan, or Mendes-who was the sixth place finisher?

Past Best Director Contests: 2009201020112012, 2013

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